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Meanwhile, back at the ranch...

By Ronna Russell ~

While I was busy making bad choices, so was Preacher Dad. While Mom and sister were out of town, PD’s friend showed up. They retired together to my parent’s bedroom. PD saw the look of shock on my face and said, “Oh, it’s just like when you have a friend over.”

#1. What friend?

#2. I’m not an idiot.

Eventually, PD was caught in a gay bathhouse and secretly fired from the church. A story was concocted for the congregation and he moved to L.A. The concocted story was told to us all, including my mother. NO ONE told my mother why her husband no longer had a job even though she was church secretary. PD found work in L.A. and his partner joined him there. (No one was calling him “partner,” but that was the truth.) He would come home for an occasional weekend and pretend to be husband/father. Mom was left alone, trying to make ends meet. No one took her aside and told her the truth. Except me. I can’t remember how the conversation came about, but we were sitting on her bed. She was unable to believe all the evidence that PD was gay, so I told her that PD’s partner had slept in her bed while she was out of town. I asked how long it had been since he slept with her and she said not that long, so I recommended an AIDs test and saw the understanding settle into her face. To her credit, she wasted no time in doing that. She also packed her bags, moved back to Vancouver and divorced PD. It is impossible to overestimate the amount of courage these actions took. He never once had a real conversation with her, never apologized; never gave her any sense of closure or reassurance that he had ever loved her. PD was done.

I had no understanding of regular relationships, no sense of how to be in the world. It was clear that I did not fit in anywhere. I worked in restaurant offices and could see that the wait staff, mostly college students my own age, lived lives I could not comprehend; attending school, living in apartments paid for by parents, socializing. Shopping in malls and having relationships. It was all so far beyond me. I was weird, but I supported myself and was free of religion. I was also desperately lonely until I struck up a friendship with a man at work. He was creative, brilliant and funny and came from an atheist family, so I married him. He married me because that is what I wanted. We set about starting a family right away because that is what I wanted. He was a companion and a friend and he loved me. And we had beautiful babies. I built a cocoon, wrapped up in a family of my own, ignoring the parts of myself I was neglecting. Because you just can’t fix everything at once.

About a month after baby #2 was born, I came home to find a handwritten envelope from PD on the table and my heart lurched. It could only be bad news, and it truly was. He wrote one letter to everyone in the family and sent copies to us all. He had AIDs; had been HIV positive for quite a while and the disease had progressed. He was starting treatment, but the prognosis was not good. It was 1995; just before medication that worked became available. I went to see him with my sisters on Father’s Day and again in November. By then he was hospitalized; it was near the end. I had some time alone with him in his hospital room; knowing it was the last time I would ever see him alive. We chatted about this and that. When I tried to turn the conversation to a personal place, I choked on the words. He turned on the television. A news story was running about a mother who had killed her daughter. She was being dragged off in handcuffs yelling I didn’t did it, I didn’t did it.

Conversation over. I left, heartbroken and stunned.

A few weeks later, the phone rang at 2:00 am. I lay in bed feigning sleep, knowing what the call was. PD’s partner called again at 6:00 am and this time I answered. It was over.

I read this poem at his funeral:

Only a Person who Risks is Free

To laugh is to risk appearing the fool.
To weep is to risk appearing sentimental.
To reach for another is to risk involvement.
To expose your ideas, your dreams,
before a crowd is to risk their loss.
To love is to risk not being loved in return.
To live is to risk dying.
To believe is to risk despair.
To try is to risk failure.
But risks must be taken, because the
greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.
The people who risk nothing, do nothing,
have nothing, are nothing.
They may avoid suffering and sorrow,
but they cannot learn, feel, change,
grow, love, live.
Chained by their attitudes they are slaves;
they have forfeited their freedom.
Only a person who risks is free.

– Anonymous

After I read the poem, I took my still-nursing daughter back to the car, out of the wind of the Oregon plains. Unfortunately, I sat in the driver’s seat to feed her, where she promptly kicked the car horn, which emitted a very loud blast and everyone attending the service turned to look. I thought it a fitting end.